Post-Bulletin of Rochester, Jan. 9
Economic disclosure rules need a makeover
In Section 10A.09 of the 2012 Minnesota Statutes, under the heading "Statements of Economic Interest," you'll find a clause requiring members of the Minnesota Legislature to disclose information about their sources of nonlegislative income.
The idea, obviously, is to prevent conflicts of interest. Legislators earn about $31,000 per year plus expenses, so most who are not retired have some other form of income. It's in the best interests of voters (and other legislators) to know who is getting paid by whom. Specifically, legislators are supposed to reveal "the name of each associated business and the nature of that association."
With the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature convening this week, Minnesota Public Radio examined the information disclosed by legislators and concluded "the forms do not provide meaningful information that could alert the public to potential conflicts of interest."
We looked at the forms, too, and we wholeheartedly agree.
That's not to say the forms don't contain some nuggets of information. For example, if you'd like to know who among your legislators use Charles Schwab as their investment broker or who owns shares of T Rowe Price mutual funds, you might find these disclosures interesting.
Even the titles people give themselves under the occupation heading are entertaining. Rep. Sarah Anderson, of Plymouth, calls herself a "professional," which is about as informative as "businessman," ''consultant," ''director" and "executive" — some of the other occupations being claimed.
We give Rep. Nick Zerwas, of Elk River, full credit for honesty in declaring himself "unemployed" on his disclosure statement, but we discovered his House Web page says he's a "consultant." Which is it, Nick?
But really, there's little to be gleaned from these reports. Legislators who are self-employed, perhaps as attorneys or consultants, understandably are reluctant to reveal the identity of their clients, and the law doesn't require them to do so. Yet, these are the type of business connections that have the greatest potential to create conflicts of interest in St. Paul.
How could the system be better? For starters, legislators need to have it better explained to them, so everyone is on the same page. Right now, we must conclude either that some of our legislators have their retirement nesteggs stashed under mattresses or there's rampant confusion regarding what must be revealed. (We suspect the latter.)
More importantly, the statute should be revised to require legislators to reveal at least the broad areas in which their outside employment touches upon matters of public interest. For example, a lawyer or consultant who has a major hospital as a client should have to reveal at least that much information — information that should be considered not just when votes are being counted but when committee appointments are being made.
Ultimately, of course, we have to rely on something akin to the honor system. We need legislators who are up-front and honest about their outside interests and who are willing to say "no" to certain financial opportunities while in office.
We'd also hope every legislator who takes the oath of office does so with the full knowledge that they're making a commitment to their district and to the state, a commitment that shouldn't be broken a few weeks later simply because someone on the outside offers a big paycheck. Rep. Steve Gottwalt, of St. Cloud, takes the opposite view, so he's resigning.
If money is what chiefly drives you, you have little business seeking an office that bears the title "public servant."
The Free Press of Mankato, Jan. 8
Split up farm bill, debate merits separately
In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay condemning political rhetoric, which he said was an attempt "to make lies sound truthful." In his book "1984," which warned of a dark totalitarian control over society, he created the Ministry of Truth, which had such slogans inscribed on its wall as "War is Peace," ''Freedom is Slavery" and "Ignorance is Strength."
Orwell's "1984" was fiction but his ominous prediction of "doublespeak" by government is very much alive. Exhibit One: The farm bill.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is attacking the House GOP over its balking at approving the 2012 farm bill, saying opposition is coming from people who don't understand rural America. "Ever since reapportionment, fewer legislators have come from rural areas" and "urban" lawmakers don't understand the importance rural communities play in the makeup of America.
The impression is given that those who are opposed to the present farm bill are anti-agriculture "city slickers" who are holding farm interests hostage, and that merely extending the present farm bill for debate rather than agreeing to the lock on the $500 billion bill over 10 years will have a profound effect on the economy.
While this plays well into sound bites for TV news, in fact the farm bill is much more than just agriculture. It involves farm policy, food stamps, telecommunications, research, energy, forestry and conservation. But more important, the farm bill is 80 percent food stamps and nutrition programs -- $400 billion, the vast majority of the bill.
Logic would dictate that given the overwhelming importance determined by funding of this bill it should be called the Nutrition Bill, or the Healthy Eating Bill. But don't expect it to be called the Food Stamp Bill anytime soon because it plays better with Congress in selling this Orwellian "truth" to taxpayers.
Vilsack says it is ideology that is blocking a "reform-minded" farm bill and without a doubt there was some reform, especially by way of subsidies and actual cuts in the food stamp program that some feel is too much while others feel is too little. But ideology also speaks to the Democratic side which wants not only an increase in food stamps which it believes is feeding hungry Americans but also it is blocking any attempts to turn the program over to individual states in block grant programs, thereby losing control.
Meanwhile, amidst this ideological war, there are farmers who need certainty in their business -- along with other businesses in America -- who are suffering and frustrated. And there is angst over drought relief looming ever so heavily going into this year.
If the administration and Congress truly felt empathy for rural America, it would decouple the farm bill from all the other interests under its dome and allow an honest airing of the individual portions contained in it. That way honest debates can be had on farm policy, conservation, subsidies and, yes, nutrition needs for our nation.
To do no less -- to hide or bury initiatives either side considers important but feels may be at risk -- means there is no trust that voters would embrace those merits and agree to passage. But if that were the case, if indeed those elements have no merit, then they need to be laid to rest -- as does Washington "doublespeak."
Fergus Falls Journal, Jan. 2
Road funding needs innovation, and money
There is probably no tougher nut to crack than that of adequate transportation funding in Minnesota, but there is also nothing more basic to economic prosperity than an efficient and safe transportation system.
So, once again, Minnesota leaders must come up with a way to fund the most critical needs first and at the same time develop a long-term funding solution. The recent report from Gov. Mark Dayton's Transportation Finance Advisory Group suggested increasing the state gas tax, vehicle registration fees and metro area special sales taxes.
Already, Dayton is backing away from supporting increasing the gas tax, saying it doesn't have popular or political support.
That may be true, but we can't think of a fee or funding stream that wouldn't affect some part of the population while many want better roads, less congestion and more safety. A gas tax is a very straightforward user fee. Those who pay it get the direct benefits from better roads.
Reports on the task force's recommendations don't appear to include much about road spending in Minnesota. It seems the so-called $50 billion funding gap between current revenues and needs is almost taken as a given.
Leaders need to ask hard questions about MnDOT's current spending. Are new bike trails as critical as safe roads and bridges? Or can we encourage biking to reduce road volume? Are the standards for metro congestion appropriate? Does widening a road to reduce congestion only increase the traffic? Is there enough use of light rail and transit to justify the subsidy? Is residential growth planned with roads in mind?
The other big idea might be financing highways with bonds instead of paying as we go. Debt financing of roads can be considered long-term financing of a long-term asset. It's the same premise we use to fund state buildings, so it's a logical step for road funding.
Clearly, the road funding needs far exceed revenue streams right now. We have some catching up to do. But if we do it in smart ways, we'll be able to enhance the taxpayer value of road funding dollars.